Can someone write a decent article on Rob Bell? Wasn’t that LA Magazine track – GetReligion
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Rob Bell, the superstar pastor of Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose 2011 book Ask If Hell Is Really Real took him out of evangelical Christian circles. He was quite the phenomenon a decade ago and then he was gone for a while.
Turns out, like many people who live in the northern half of the country, Bell wanted to escape to a better climate – so it was in California that he went.
Los Angeles Magazine just posted a long article on what Bell does now while living near the Tony Venice Beach section of Los Angeles. The moving photos look like, as a Twitter poster noted, “like he’s delivering sandwiches to a trendy Portland restaurant.”
The story begins with an occasional mention of Bell having surfed that morning in Malibu. But (repeat the flashback) 10 years ago:
… Bell was one of America’s foremost evangelical pastors. Its Michigan mega-church, Mars Hill, attracted more than 10,000 worshipers per weekend. His first book, the years 2005 Velvet Elvis: repainting the Christian faith, sold half a million copies. And he has made annual lecture tours to crowded theaters around the world. One newspaper called him “The Next Billy Graham”. But that was before Bell went to hell.
In his fourth book, 2011’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell wondered aloud if a loving God would really condemn billions of unbelievers to eternal torment. The book sold half a million copies and earned him the cover of Time. This has led to friendships with people like Oprah Winfrey. But it also led conservative pastors to label him a heretic and a false teacher; this led him to not only leave his church, but the church; this led him to question the faith that had made him famous. And that led him to Los Angeles.
Then he started a podcast in 2015.
Over 300 episodes and tens of millions of downloads later, the Robcast helped resuscitate Bell’s career. Its book sales have rebounded. This year, he embarked on his first international speaking tour since the pandemic. As Americans increasingly abandon religion, many former evangelicals have found solace in Bell’s uncommitted spiritual instruction. And once again, Bell found himself at the forefront of the evolution of religious expression in the United States.
This first-person story then – annoyingly – shifts to the perspective of the reporter who (#SURPRISE) tells how he grew up evangelical near Tampa but was also distracted from his own church talk on hell and has was drawn to Bell’s message because it was nervous and asking questions. The reporter then uses his own disenchantment with the church to substantiate everything Bell says and is.
Towards the end, we learn that the reporter is going to surf with Bell, so there is no critical distance in this article.
Bell emerges as a sage to the burgeoning movement of church leavers among the youth; called “nones” by pollsters who try to number them. After “Love Wins” won her enough bad PR to cause her to leave her Michigan church and move to California, the story reverts to her emotionally battered family who turned to Sundays at the beach. .
These Sunday mornings he was paddling parallel to the beach, his mind moving as fast as his body, trying to process the pain he had felt from being rejected so harshly. All he wanted to do was help people see God as he did, not as exclusive and critical, but as inclusive and welcoming. After a few hours, he would come back to earth with sore shoulders and a sore heart.
The prose is breathing heavily at this point. The truth is, Jesus talked a lot about hell – so it’s not just “God” we’re referring to here. The story pits evil evangelicals / fundamentalists with their ugly God-Who-Is-In-Hell against the more enlightened masses who think hell is medieval at best.
Where this story do Shine explains how Bell – between beach visits and neighborhood bike rides – discovered a whole new audience at Podcastland.
Without local congregations sending buses full of worshipers to his speaking engagements, ticket sales for his tours declined. Without prominent placement on the shelves of Christian bookstores, its Love wins, 2013 What we talk about when we talk about God, only sold a tenth of the copies. Through his connections with Hollywood, Bell wrote a pilot for a drama titled Stronger with Carlton Cuse, the showrunner on Lost. ABC chose it, but it never aired. He filmed two episodes of a talk show for Oprah’s OWN network, but it was not picked up. The problem was, he was looking for a new audience in the same old spaces. Religious conservatives cluttered traditional platforms – the pulpit, publishing, television and radio.
But podcasting is still public opinion’s Wild West and Bell has done well there because young people may not be into organized religion, but they are into “spirituality.”
One thing that struck me was how, thanks to the pandemic and the changing nature of journalism, many of us have been out of work more than once in the past decade. However, no one I know has asked to write a TV pilot or an episode of Oprah. Bell came to California with tremendous connections and real advantages over the rest of ordinary people during this strange time.